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Reliquary of Saint Anthony, the Shrine of Saint Anthony, Ellicott City, Maryland, USA.

Reliquary of Saint Anthony, the Shrine of Saint Anthony, Ellicott City, Maryland, USA

Discovering Saint Anthony

We stopped in Rottweil, Germany, on a whim, drawn by its distinctive name and apparent connection to the Rottweiler, a famous breed of dog.  We spent the morning in leisurely exploration before we eventually found our way to the Church of the Holy Cross (Heilig Kreuz Münster) near the commercial center of Rottweil.  Built in 1230-1534, the church features a triple nave, intricate network vaults, and very fine examples of late Gothic wood carving, including an altar of Saint Bartholomew by Michael Wolgemut and a crucifix attributed to Veit Stoss.  In the south transept of the church, an altar steeped in late morning light drew our attention.  Stoical saints bearing burnished objects — a golden chalice here, a large knife there — beckoned us to peer closer, to gaze, to contemplate.

Altar with Saints, Church of the Holy Cross, Rottweil, Germany

Altar with Saints, Church of the Holy Cross, Rottweil, Germany

Meanwhile, several yards away, tucked in a dim corner by an exit, stood a modest sculpture: the humble figure of a friar in Franciscan robes.  We initially overlooked the statue amidst the many carvings and altars of the church, but once we noticed it, something about the image’s unassuming bearing invited us to linger.

“What did you lose?”  An older gentleman suddenly asked as he edged by us and dropped a few coins in a collection box near the statue.

“Nothing,” we answered hesitatingly.  “Why do you ask?”

“You were staring at Saint Anthony, so I thought you must have lost something.” he replied.  “I lost my glasses this morning, and I looked everywhere for them, but I couldn’t  find them.  So I prayed to Saint Anthony, and I found them!”  At this, he raised a pair of spectacles as if in a triumphant toast.  “I came here to thank the saint with an offering.  If you’ve lost something, you should pray to Saint Anthony!”

Altar of Saint Bartolomen, Michael Wolgemut, Church of the Holy Cross, Rottweil, Germany

Altar of Saint Nicolaus, Church of the Holy Cross, Rottweil, Germany

Patron Saint of Lost Things

It is unclear how Saint Anthony became a patron saint of lost items or lost things.  The Lives of the Saints suggests his patronage may be traced to a miracle recounted in the Chronica XXIV Generalium (No. 21).[1]  The Lives of the Saints sums up the story as follows:  “A novice ran away and carried off a valuable psalter St Antony was using.  He prayed for its recovery and the novice was compelled by an alarming apparition to come back and return it.”[2]

As the gentleman we encountered in Rottweil demonstrated, the saint’s reputation as a finder of lost or stolen things has only grown since the incident of the lost psalter.  Writing in Saint Anthony of Padua:  His Life, Legends, and Devotions, Norman Perry explains, “Nearly everywhere, Anthony is asked to intercede with God for the return of things lost or stolen.”[3]  Perry notes that “[t]hose who feel very familiar with him might pray, ‘Tony, Tony, turn around.  Something’s lost and must be found.’”[4]  A number of other prayers for the recovery of lost objects are also popular — for those on less familiar terms with the saint.

Church of the Holy Cross, Rottweil, Germany.  A carved crucifix attributed to Veit Stoss is visible at the center of the photograph, behind the main altar.

Church of the Holy Cross, Rottweil, Germany. A carved crucifix attributed to Veit Stoss is visible at the center of the photograph, behind the main altar.

The Sermon to the Fishes

During his lifetime, Saint Anthony was famous for his preaching.  As The Lives of the Saints explains, he had all the requisite qualifications of a great preacher:  “learning, eloquence, great power of persuasion, a burning zeal for souls and a sonorous voice which carried far.”[5]  His talent for preaching, however, was discovered by accident.  According to legend, he was called to deliver a sermon at the last minute during a ceremony attended by a number of Dominican and Franciscan friars.  “Through some misunderstanding none of the Dominicans had come prepared to deliver the customary address at the ceremony, and as no one among the Franciscans seemed capable of filling the breach St Antony, who was present, was told to come forward and speak whatever the Holy Ghost should put into his mouth.”[6]  Saint Anthony dazzled the crowd with his knowledge and eloquence, and he was subsequently assigned to preach throughout Lombardy and northern Italy.

As talented an orator as he was, however, Saint Anthony did not always immediately succeed in his mission.  In the ancient city of Rimini on the Adriatic, for example, Saint Anthony struggled to convert the city’s recalcitrant, unsympathetic population.  “He preached unto them for many days and disputed with them of the faith of Christ and of the Holy Scriptures; but they as men hard of heart and obstinate, would not even listen to him.”[7]  Undeterred, Saint Anthony chose to deliver a sermon nearby, to a different, though somewhat untraditional, audience.  Standing on the bank of a river near the sea, Saint Anthony began to “speak unto the fishes, as a preacher sent unto them of God.”[8]

Miraculous Draught of Fishes (detail), Jacopo Bassano, oil on canvas (1545), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Although this painting does not depict Saint Anthony's Sermon to the Fishes, I imagine the fish peeking their heads out of the water as in this painting of the miraculous catch of fish.

Miraculous Draught of Fishes (detail), Jacopo Bassano, oil on canvas (1545), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Although this painting does not depict Saint Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes, I imagine the fish peeking their heads out of the water as in this painting of the miraculous catch of fish.

“Hear the word of God, ye fishes of the sea and of the river, since the infidel heretics refuse to hear it,” he declared.  Soon thereafter, “there came to him to the bank so vast a multitude of fishes, big, little and of middling size, that never in that sea or in that river had there been so great a multitude.”[9]  All of them “held their heads out of the water” and all “gazed attentively on the face of St. Antony, abiding there in very great peace and gentleness and order.”[10]  As Saint Anthony spoke, the fish opened their mouthes, bowed their heads, and made other signs of reverence.  As Saint Anthony continued to preach, even more fish began to arrive.[11]

This unusual sermon did not go unnoticed.  “To see this miracle the people of the city began to run thither, and among them came also the heretics aforesaid; who, beholding so marvelous and clear a miracle, were pricked in the hearts, and all cast themselves at the feet of St. Antony to hear his words.”[12]  While Saint Francis is often remembered for preaching to the birds, Saint Anthony is frequently remembered for this miracle, his incredible Sermon to the Fishes. Perhaps he had a burning zeal for sole as well as souls!

The Shrine of Saint Anthony

The Shrine of Saint Anthony rests atop a modest hill, surrounded by bucolic farms and woodland, in rural Howard County, Maryland, USA.  Modeled after the Sacro Convento in Assisi, Italy, the shrine at first seems out of place in the American countryside.  Something about the shrine’s monasterial silhouette, however, can feel familiar in the heat of a midsummer afternoon, against an azure sky.

Courtyard of the Shrine of Saint Anthony, Ellicott City, Maryland, USA.

Courtyard of the Shrine of Saint Anthony, Ellicott City, Maryland, USA

Construction of the Shrine of Saint Anthony began in 1930 and was completed a year later, in 1931.  Built on land once owned by Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the American Declaration of Independence, the shrine features over 200 acres of grounds and walking trails.  The shrine also houses a first class relic of Saint Anthony:  a small piece of skin donated to the shrine by the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua in 1995.[13]

Chapel of the Relic of Saint Anthony

The chapel containing the relic of Saint Anthony is located at the rear of the shrine, near a side parking lot.  The relic itself is stored in a small reliquary that has, in turn, been incorporated into a golden statue of Saint Anthony.  The statue depicts the saint from the waist up against a background of leaping flames.  His right hand is raised in blessing, and his left hand grasps a book, a common attribute of the saint, which he  holds horizontally.  More flames spring from the book, and at the center of the fire rests a modest reliquary containing a small sample of Saint Anthony’s skin.

Reliquary of Saint Anthony, close-up of relic, the Shrine of Saint Anthony, Ellicott City, Maryland, USA.

Reliquary of Saint Anthony, close-up of relic, the Shrine of Saint Anthony, Ellicott City, Maryland, USA

The reliquary appears to be identical to another reliquary containing the saint’s skin that I once examined in Krakow, Poland.  Located at the Archdiocesan Museum in Krakow, that reliquary was not incorporated into a larger display but was, rather, exhibited along with other reliquaries in a simple, museum-style glass case.  Presumably, that relic was also a gift of the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua, which probably uses identical casings to house relics given as devotional gifts to other institutions.

Relic of Saint Antoni Padewski (Saint Anthony of Padua), silver and gold plate, Archdiocesan Museum, Krakow, Poland

Relic of Saint Antoni Padewski (Saint Anthony of Padua), silver and gold plate, Archdiocesan Museum, Krakow, Poland

Saint Anthony in Art

In art, Saint Anthony is most commonly portrayed as a Franciscan friar carrying either a book, a white lily, the baby Jesus, fire, or a burning heart.[14]  He may also be shown with a flowered cross, a book pierced by a sword, a fish (evoking his Sermon to the Fishes), or a kneeling donkey or mule.[15]  The symbol of the donkey derives from a story concerning a heretic from Toulouse (sometimes the city is Rimini) who refused to acknowledge Christ’s presence in the Eucharist unless he witnessed his donkey kneel before the Sacrament.[16]  In one version of the story, as Saint Anthony was delivering the Eucharist to a dying man elsewhere in the city, he encountered the man’s donkey on the street.  The donkey dutifully bowed its head and knelt before the Eucharist for everyone to see.[17]

Miracle of the Mule, Shrine of Saint Anthony, Ellicott City, Maryland, USA.  This statue group is located on the grounds of the Shrine of Saint Anthony.  A mule or donkey kneels before the Eucharist, held aloft by Saint Anthony in a monstrance.

Miracle of the Mule, Shrine of Saint Anthony, Ellicott City, Maryland, USA. This statue group is located on the grounds of the Shrine of Saint Anthony. A mule or donkey kneels before the Eucharist, held aloft by Saint Anthony in a monstrance.

White lilies signify Saint Anthony’s purity, and in many parts of the world, lilies are blessed on the Feast of Saint Anthony, the 13th of June.  Meanwhile, the image of Saint Anthony with the Christ child has apparently evolved over time.  In earlier depictions of Saint Anthony with the Christ child, Jesus may be shown on the pages of a book, rising out of a book, or standing directly on a book in Saint Anthony’s hands.  During the 17th century, artists began to portray the Christ child as fully emerged from the book and often placed him physically in the saint’s arms.[18]  The image of the Christ child in or on a book (usually the Bible) likely represents the incarnation of the word of God, and Saint Anthony’s association with the visual metaphor is not surprising.  Saint Anthony often preached about the Incarnation and helped spread the Incarnate Word of God in his celebrated sermons.[19]

Today, Saint Anthony continues to be remembered for his great learning and his prodigious talent as a preacher.  In 1946, Pope Pius XII declared the saint a doctor of the church — officially, a “Doctor of the Gospel.”[20]  Meanwhile, his incorrupt tongue is kept in a crystal urn in the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua (Basilica Pontificia di Sant’Antonio di Padova) in Padua, Italy.

Saint Anthony of Padua, Vincenzo Foppa, oil (?) on panel (1495/1500).  Here, Saint Anthony carries two of his common attributes:  a white lily and a book.

Saint Anthony of Padua, Vincenzo Foppa, oil (?) on panel (1495/1500), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Here, Saint Anthony carries two of his common attributes: a white lily and a book.

 


[1] 3 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 536 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).

[2]  Id.

[3]  Saint Anthony of Padua:  His Life, Legends, and Devotions 64 (Jack Wintz ed., 2012).

[4]  Id.

[5]  Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 1, at 535.

[6]  Id.

[7]  The Little Flowers of St. Francis 101 (W. Heywood trans., 1906).

[8]  Id.

[9]  Id.

[10]  Id.

[11]  Id. at 102.

[12]  Id. at 103.

[13] The Shrine of St. Anthony:  A Ministry of the Conventual Franciscan Friars (n.d.).

[14]  Rosa Giorgi, Saints in Art 38 (Stefano Zuffi ed. & Thomas Michael Hartmann trans., 2002).

[15]  George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art 105 (1954).

[16]  Id.

[17]  Id.

[18]  Jack Wintz, “Why St. Anthony Holds the Child Jesus,” in Saint Anthony of Padua:  His Life, Legends, and Devotions 36 (2012).

[19]  Id. at 38-39.

[20]  Wintz, supra note 18, at 38.

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